On This Day

dan white, dan white harvey milk, harvey milker killer, george moscone
Associated Press
Left to right: Harvey Milk, George Moscone and Dan White.

On This Day: Harvey Milk’s Killer Avoids Murder Conviction With “Twinkie Defense”

May 21, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 21, 1979, former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting deaths of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The trial is most remembered for White's “Twinkie defense.”

White Gets Less Than Eight Years for Killing Milk, Moscone

Dan White was a conservative Vietnam veteran and former fireman who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors alongside gay rights activist Harvey Milk. In November 1978, White resigned, saying that he couldn’t support his family on a City Supervisor salary. Mayor George Moscone told White he would consider reappointing him if he chose to come back.

White changed his mind and asked to return. Moscone, however, under pressure by Milk—whose gay-rights ordinance had been voted against by White—refused White’s reappointment.

The next day, White loaded a .38 revolver and went to City Hall. Entering through a window to avoid a weapons check, he walked into Moscone’s office and shot him four times. He then walked down the hall to Milk’s office and shot him five times, finishing with point-blank shots to the head.

White turned himself in to the police later that day and admitted to the killings.

At trial, his defense argued that White had diminished capacity due to depression, and thus could not have premeditated the killings. As evidence for his depression, they mentioned that he had been eating a lot of junk food. The media seized on this factor as the cause of White's depression and eventually, the argument became known, famously, as the “Twinkie defense.”

A mostly conservative jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. He was only sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison.

San Francisco’s gay community was outraged and demanded justice for Milk. A large crowd marched to City Hall and began rioting; some protesters began smashing windows, setting fire to police cars and starting fights with police officers.

Later that night, after the protest had dissipated, the police entered the Castro district and attacked patrons of the Elephant Walk bar. The next day—Milk’s birthday—the violence turned to celebration, as the Castro district remembered the life of Harvey Milk.

Legacy of the “Twinkie Defense”

Following the trial, the media focused on the junk food issue. White’s defense was distorted and it soon became widely believed that White’s rage was caused by sugary food. The so-called “Twinkie defense” has become synonymous with outrageous defenses.

Despite the fact that Twinkies may have only been mentioned once during the trial, the San Francisco Chronicle, in a story marking the 25th anniversary of the event, wrote that the “‘Twinkie defense’ is so ingrained in our culture that it appears in law dictionaries, in sociology textbooks, in college exams and in more than 2,800 references on Google. Only a few of them call it what it is: a myth."

Opinion & Analysis: White’s Motivation

White is commonly believed to have killed Milk because of his hatred for homosexuals. In a January 2008 San Francisco Weekly piece, however, White’s former political consultant, openly gay Ray Sloan, defends White against accusations of homophobia. White had actually supported Milk on several gay rights issues and the two were friendly.

According to Sloan, that changed when Milk voted for a zoning bill that White opposed after implying that he would vote against it. White became bitter toward Milk and, as his political career fell apart and he struggled to support his family, he fell into a depression that would lead him to murder Milk and Moscone.

Biographies: Milk, Moscone and White

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. In his 11 months as supervisor, he became an icon of the gay rights movement and sponsored a law against anti-gay discrimination. The flamboyant Milk was not only open about his sexuality, but proud. He wanted to set an example to homosexuals across the country that they should not be ashamed.

One of his most notable accomplishments was leading the opposition to Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have required the firing of all homosexual public school teachers. It was in opposition to the Briggs Initiative that he gave his most famous speech.
Milk received many death threats, and he recorded a message to be played after his death, in which he said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

George Moscone
George Moscone was the “first truly progressive mayor of San Francisco,” writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Elected in 1975, his tenure is best known for keeping the Giants baseball team from moving and appointing many women, minorities and gays to government positions.

“I think the legacy of inclusiveness, which I believe was the hallmark of George’s approach to politics, remains and will never change,” said Moscone’s Deputy Mayor Rudy Nothenberg.

Dan White
White served five years in prison and was released in January 1984. He spent a year in Los Angeles on parole before returning to San Francisco, where he struggled to get his life back on track.

On Oct. 21, 1985, he committed suicide by piping carbon monoxide into his car. “We’ve said all along there were three victims in this,” said his lawyer, Douglas Schmidt. “Today Dan White became the third victim.”

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